U.S. Focused On Migration As Guatemala's President Kills Anti-Corruption Effort

Aug 25, 2019
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House's Latin America adviser was in Guatemala this past week urging leaders to make good on a migration accord signed last month. The deal requires that Guatemala accept most Central American migrants fleeing their countries. Critics say that the plan is short-sighted and won't stem the flow of migrants. They want Trump to help Guatemala fight corruption and crime. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the administration is more focused on migration and has ended more than a decade of support for a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission being forced out of the country.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known in Spanish by its initials, CICIG, has less than two weeks left in Guatemala. Current president, Jimmy Morales, ended its tenure in January, accusing the U.N.-backed prosecutors of overreaching. Morales himself had come under investigation for illegal campaign contributions, one of his sons and a brother investigated for other crimes. Morales not only suspended the commission - he expelled its director.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: In a packed hotel ballroom, supporters, activists and community leaders gave a prolonged standing ovation to CICIG's head, Ivan Velasquez, who spoke to the crowd by video transmission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVAN VELASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have done a lot of work here," he said, "but there is still so much more to do." In fact, during its tenure in Guatemala, CICIG broke up some of the country's largest criminal networks, jailing past presidents and indicting drug traffickers and business leaders. Helen Mack, a Guatemalan activist, says CICIG's demise is a huge step backward. She vows to stay vigilant.

HELEN MACK: We can't give up because this is our country, and we have to keep fighting.

KAHN: Supporters say it was the U.S. that gave up on that fight, culminating with CICIG's ouster. The U.N.-backed commission had long received strong financial backing and bipartisan support from the U.S., but that ended with the Trump administration, which has been silent over the past two years as opponents gained momentum to force it out. A U.S. state department official didn't address questions about why support of the commission had waned but told NPR the U.S. will continue to work with Guatemalans to fight corruption.

Daniel Zovatto, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, says the Trump administration has wrongly become solely focused on migration.

DANIEL ZOVATTO: For this region, if we don't address the fundamental issues, migration will continue.

KAHN: Trump's White House adviser for Latin America and Guatemala this week told officials the administration wants to quickly implement the migration accord, which has been delayed by a court challenge here. The deal referred to as a safe third country agreement would require Hondurans and Salvadorans to apply for asylum in Guatemala first before being allowed to seek refuge in the U.S. Javier Hernandez, head of current president Jimmy Morales' political party, says once the legal issues are resolved, Guatemala is ready to help the U.S. crack down on irregular migration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAVIER HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are going to stop that migration, help out. We will have support centers and work visas," he says. For now, though, none of that help is available for the Central American migrants already here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: A half dozen men sit in the dining hall at a migrant shelter in downtown Guatemala City watching TV. One man from El Salvador who asked NPR to only use his first name, Jose (ph), out of fear gang members might locate him, says he's asked for asylum in Guatemala. But until his case is resolved, he barely leaves the shelter.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "You can't work here. Everywhere I've gone to apply for a job, even at car washes, they ask for your work permit," he says. He can't get that permit until his claim is resolved, and that could take years. Guatemala's tiny asylum office with just eight workers has a backlog of more than 400 cases.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They've told me my time at the shelter has run out, and I have to go." Jose says he fled El Salvador after gang members kidnapped him and cut his leg with a machete. He had refused to collect their extortion payments. Once the shelter makes him leave, he has no other option, he says, but to head to the U.S.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.